Not all lobbyists are bad: The fight to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.

In Washington D.C., no one ever invites me to dinner parties. Of course, no one has dinner parties to invite me to; it’s all about happy hour, a recreation in which I rarely take part. My colleagues in the gender-based violence field and I joke that no one wants to talk to us at social gatherings, because we’re downers. We are stuffed to the gills with facts, statistics, horror stories, laws, legislation and court cases related to intimate partner violence — not great conversation fodder.

After decades of viewing lobbyists as a corrupting force in government (which they certainly are in many cases), I’m still a little embarrassed to tell people that I’m a lobbyist. I invariably preface “lobbyist” with “nonprofit” or add, “I work on domestic violence issues,” when anyone inquires after my profession. Sometimes I even say, “I’m a lobbyist for the good guys.” My official title is director of public policy.

When I moved to D.C., my knowledge of the federal, behind-the-scenes legislating process was based largely on the dramatic depiction in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde. In truth, as in the movie, 20- and 30-something-year-old staff do most of the work. And while hyper-partisanship flourishes on the public stage, many staff people work together across the aisle in good faith, particularly on certain issues — including domestic violence. Everyone agrees on one basic premise: domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence are bad.

Washington D.C. is abound with Iowans, especially people from Iowa City. In fact, women from Iowa City working for members of Congress were pivotal to both the eventual passage of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and the drama of the three years leading up to it. Being an Iowan in D.C. is, in many ways, a strength. I can talk both as a resident of a (small-ish) urban area and as someone with experience working in a rural community. Certainly, I am not an “East Coast elite.” And, while I have not found people from elsewhere in the country to be unpleasant, Iowa nice is a real thing. Genuine friendliness is an asset to a lobbyist.

In my professional world, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a rite of passage. VAWA is the big bill — the headline-grabbing, soundbyte-producing, anguish-causing, war-on-women bombshell.

Gender-based violence impacts every person in America. One in four women and one in seven men experience intimate partner violence; one in five women and one in 71 men experience rape in their lives. Whether they know it or not, everyone reading this publication has a family member, friend, colleague or acquaintance who has experienced gender-based violence.

VAWA, originally passed in 1994, is one of the pillars of the federal government’s response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, providing grant funding for state and local efforts to combat these crimes and to serve survivors.

It is currently unauthorized. Money is still flowing to grantees, but this gives lawmakers the opportunity to review the grant programs and make any necessary changes to ensure they are accomplishing their intended goals. You can think of reauthorization as a sequel to Schoolhouse Rock!’s “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”

Our VAWA reauthorization process started more than three years ago. Public policy professionals from a myriad of national organizations that work primarily on domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking gathered in D.C. to begin identifying necessary improvements to VAWA. We established 20 topic-area subcommittees and gathered input from local and state domestic violence and sexual assault programs, community-based organizations, academics, allies in intersecting fields and others. In all of our work, we are committed to centering the margins. We recognize that many communities face significant and unique barriers to accessing safety and justice, and we prioritize the wellbeing of all survivors.

I spend a lot of time on conference calls. I have one or two conference calls on Mondays, two or three on Tuesdays, one on Wednesdays and four on Fridays. Yes, four. Working in coalition with other organizations maximizes our effectiveness, but it’s very hard on one’s phone battery. Sometimes, it’s hard to focus, call after call, so I have taken to crocheting hats, which my sister-in-law has been kind enough to take off my hands. It helps keep my mind from drifting. When my hands get tired, there’s always solitaire.

While we were writing a 200-plus-page bill draft, we had even more conference calls. Truly, I don’t know how our foremothers wrote bills collaboratively before email, Dropbox and Google Docs. Admittedly, I once speculated about couriers — maybe on bicycles?

My favorite part of my job, though, is meeting with Hill staff. I’m not sure why that is. I think it might be just that I like talking to a variety of people. Plus, these are people who share a common passion — public policy. While we might disagree in our priorities, conversing with staff tends to be energizing. (Of course, after work, I don’t want to talk to anyone other than my husband.)

In our conversations about VAWA, from the very beginning, we had one very important baseline: During a time when immigrants and LGTBQ people are under attack and when racism is lauded by some, we would accept no rollbacks to current protections for marginalized communities. That means that we would not abide any harmful changes to the laws that protect undocumented immigrant survivors; prohibit VAWA grantees from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity; and affirm tribes’ inherent, sovereign authority to hold non-natives who commit domestic violence on native lands criminally accountable.

Ultimately, in collaboration with Hill offices, we then drafted initial legislative language, which eventually became H.R.6545 in the 115th Congress and H.R.1585 and S.2843 in the 116th Congress. Due to a variety of factors, the offices we were initially working with shifted between congresses, from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) to Reps. Karen Bass (D-CA-37) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01).

In April last year, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019, (H.R.1585, almost verbatim the same as H.R.6545), passed the House of Representatives with strong support from both sides of the aisle.

The bill would never have received such solid backing without the active intervention of House members’ constituents, including many reading this publication. They called, emailed, tweeted and otherwise contacted their House members to ask them to support H.R.1585 — and their representatives listened. We rely heavily on the activism of people who care deeply about ending gender-based violence and who have the power to remove members of Congress from office if they are displeased.

After the passage of H.R.1585, we began extensive negotiations with the staffs of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Iowa’s own Sen. Joni Ernst (R), which led to, if not quite a dead end, certainly a traffic circle. Sen. Ernst announced on the Senate floor that negotiations had broken down. Shortly thereafter, Sen. Feinstein introduced S.2843, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. S.2843 is substantially similar to H.R.1585 and has the strong support of the gender-based violence field. A few weeks later, Senator Ernst introduced S.2920, also called the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019.

Throughout this process, a lot of politicians were saying not-so-nice things about each other, including accusing Sen. Feinstein of politicizing VAWA by introducing our bill — the advocates’ bill, the bill that passed the House with strong bipartisan support. Ultimately, Feinstein and Ernst spoke to each other on the Senate floor and recommitted to negotiating a bipartisan bill.

We look forward to continuing the process and incorporating the best from both bills. We do not expect a final product that we love; compromise means that everyone has to give things up. However, to repeat emphatically, we have certain bottom lines that cannot be violated, and we will not accept rollbacks!

This being said, members of Congress depend on their constituents to weigh in on important issues. We cannot pass a strong VAWA without you! So, please do not forget to call your senators and tell them to introduce and pass a VAWA reauthorization bill that:

  • Maintains protections for all communities;
  • Respects the authority of tribal courts and affirms their sovereign right to hold non-natives accountable for violence on tribal lands;
  • Disarms adjudicated abusers and stalkers, including dating abusers;
  • Addresses the needs of underserved communities;
  • Increases access to safe housing and economic stability; and
  • Is acceptable to the domestic violence and sexual assault field.

Together, we have the power to craft legislation that moves our nation’s response to gender-based violence forward. Somebody’s got to lobby for the good guys.

Rachel Graber is the director of public policy at National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), amplifying the voices of victims, survivors and domestic violence advocates in the nation’s capital. Prior to joining NCADV, Graber was a junior/senior high school guidance counselor in rural Iowa. She holds a Masters of Social Work degree and a Masters of School Counseling with an endorsement in gifted education from the University of Iowa, and is a graduate of Grinnell College. Please be advised that the opinions expressed in this article are Graber’s alone, and do not represent NCADV. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 278.

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